Jean Charlot

Notes on José Clemente Orozco's Reception of the Premio Nacional de Artes Plásticas, November 19, 19461

Re: Clemente Orozco.

Today, November 19, 11 A.M., official distribution of the prizes of the National show in the Reception Hall of the National Palace.

The rich, yellow satin of the walls, pastel blue curtains, chandeliers, and mirrors, the many jumbo size historical paintings, as heroic in their themes as they were dubious in their esthetic appeal, are the unusual frame from which the handful of artists to be honored shrink, half in awe and half in disdain. Two painters are missing, Doctor Atl, sick in Guadalajara, and Francisco Goitia, busy painting in Zacatecas.

All stand as President Ávila Camacho enters, followed by Secretary of Education Torres Bodet. They sit behind a red-covered table, with the diplomas ready at hand. President reads a short speech, humble of content, asserting that those singled for the honor have wrought their own fame that not even a President can lessen or increase. That esthetic qualities are a matter that transcends the judgments of a single generation.

First called is Orozco to receive the “Premio Nacional de Artes Plásticas” that goes with a check for 20.000 pesos.

Second, Dr. Manuel Sandoval Vallarta, for a scientific prize connected with his work on relativity and other abstruse matters. A gold medal with tricolor ribbon is tied around his neck by the President.

Architects Enrique de la Mora end Miguel Pavon are next. Then the painters present, Julio Castellanos and Frieda [sic] Kahlo, radiant in an elaborate braided Mexican headdress and floating skirt.

Center of attention is Orozco, helped through the crowds by his eldest son. Photographers and reporters crowd him with flashes and questions, while he stands with his diploma tied with a pink satin ribbon in his one hand, as if at a kind of belated commencement.

Leopoldo Méndez receives the engraver's prize.

Orozco's boom: First reason, it is well deserved. On quantity alone, only his murals match Rivera's. On quality, he bypasses Rivera in current opinion because Rivera's qualities—rational, objective, didactic approach, and a composition based on cubist geometry—appear old-fashioned to those that surrealism intrigues. On the other hand, Orozco's style has elements of subconscious, automatic calligraphy, instinctive symbolism, that match nicely the Dali-Ernst trend, with the added comfort for Mexicans to know that Orozco's style was born of a piece and remains uninfluenced by Europe. Also, of the “Tres Grandes” (the three big ones), Orozco alone could never toe the line of any party, being an old-fashioned anarchist at heart, and both communists and Catholics have claimed him for their own. His religious paintings have been hailed by clerics, and for his 1944 portrait of Monsignor Martínez, archbishop of Mexico, his model came to pose in his studio. Rivera and Siqueiros are more strictly limited to leftist accomplishments.

Winning prize: Rivera was on the jury and ineligible for a prize. Remained ineligible after his resignation as juror, as choices were made by then. Siqueiros, unsure that he could get the 20.000 prize and unwilling to take second prize, accepted to exhibit on the condition that he would be out of the contest.

Why never retrospected before now: Orozco is preeminently a muralist, which means that his best work is unmovable, has to be seen in situ. The transportable and exhibitable residue of murals are studies, and sketches, and diagrams, to which one could add photographs and photomurals. None of that is easily salable by dealers or easy to understand by the public at large. Only a government unhampered by an art market or the yearning for popular acclaim could put up this show. Its interest is more direct in Mexico, where the public can go and see most of the murals whose preliminary steps are exhibited.

Orozco, Rivera, and Siqueiros are friendly enough. All three were photographed sitting at the same table in a restaurant, with Siqueiros adding and multiplying for all three long sums representing their potential expenses on the projected Italian trip. A current anecdote: Siqueiros and Rivera came to pay a visit to Orozco who, on opening the door exclaimed, “What, Trotsky and Stalin coming to see me together!” Answered Siqueiros, “And the strangest part of it is that they come to visit the Archbishop of Mexico.”

Relative Mexico reputation of the three: Already treated that of Rivera and Orozco. Siqueiros, the youngest by over ten years, theorizes as much as he paints, writes for magazines and newspapers: Main point: Murals are made to be seen by people in movement, passing by, looking sideways, etc. The old-fashioned static composition of both Rivera and Orozco should be replaced by a dynamic arrangement catering to multiple points of view. As corollary, Siqueiros favors facetted or spherical surfaces to flat walls, as they multiply the perspective deformations. Technically, Siqueiros disdains old-fashioned fresco (Rivera and Orozco's medium) in favor of Duco and homemade Duco-like pigments. He is considered dangerously militant as an individual since his involvement in the first attempt on Trotsky's life.

Orozco's life has always been kept strictly aside his achievements as an artist. Wife Margarita, two boys in their twenties, and a daughter in her teens, all well bred bourgeois people. Success may show only in their having moved from a comfortable house in the suburb of Coyoacán to a house centrally located in the capital, built to Clemente Orozco's own specifications. Privacy is accomplished by having a receiving room where admirers can be herded direct from the street and that strictly leads nowhere. Second floor is for the family, third floor is the artist's studio, built as a studio should be, with an ample skylight. But the impatient painter, unused to luxury, keeps the light off by stuffing it with newspapers.

Personally a gentle, mild man, with only his right hand (a firecracker having blown off the left one, when a child). Age 64, deaf, famous for trenchant epigrams, very thick glasses that magnify eyes, giving him the owlish aspect he has used in self-portraits.

Chapel of Jesus prize winning, because within the conditions of the contest that work should be done within the last five years. Commission given as a compromise: Orozco could not finish the murals of the Palace of Justice that he was contracted to do because of the opposition of many of the judges of the Supreme Court, who work there. He was given to paint in the Church of Jesus an area equal to that left unpainted in the Palace of Justice, which completed his contract but left uncompleted the new decoration. Opinion has it that the incoming President, Alemán,2 being favorably inclined, will have him complete the job.

The chapel, attached to the ancient Hospital of Jesus, founded and endowed by Cortez in the XVI Century, is now disaffected. There is no thought of making it a museum, and there has been talk of returning it to the Catholic cult. On this ground, some Catholic groups have objected to the strong Apocalyptic decorations, but there may be enough Catholic admirers of same to neutralize the objections.

By law, the National prize is given every five years and to a different group of activities each time. The last one was given to a writer, the next one may go, for example, to a scientist or philanthropist, which means that it will be a generation before it returns to a painter. Hence the competition. Jealousies, normal enough among fellow artists, are more noticed in Mexico because painting is of interest to a more ample public, a fit topic for editorials, etc. Besides the generation of the “Tres Grandes,” there is an intermediate generation (Chávez Morado, Anguiano, Guerrero, Galván) and a younger set sponsored by Inez Amor, an art dealer (Soriano, Meza, Martínez). Each group impatient to emerge. A criticism of the Jury is that it attempted no recognition of the younger set and even less tried to discover unknowns: Some critics think that such an unknown young painter, Rafael Muñoz López, matched with his picture “El Chango,” the quality of anything painted by his elders.

Orozco's Biography published by El Colegio Nacional de México, of which he is a member, a part of the autonomous group of institutions of learning headed by the National University.

From the unassuming style and contents, I believe that Orozco wrote it himself. A first version appeared as a serial in the newspaper Excelsior from February to April 1942. No new facts, but the inner story of known ones important enough for the history of the mural renaissance.

Understand Italian project is stalled. The money offered by Italian Republic was only 50.000 pesos (a little over 10.000 dollars), trip expenses included. President Ávila Camacho offered an additional 200.000 p. for these “ambassadors of culture,” and they agreed to go—Rivera after he finishes the National Palace murals, which is a life-time job; Siqueiros after he finishes the Treasury Bldg. mural, stalled for a long time for lack of ingredients for the homemade pigments; Orozco is much more intent on finishing El Templo de Jesús than on leaving his home and family to start another work.

Will see tomorrow for photographs. If none available of Ulúa and Requiem, Ulúa could be reproduced from Anita Brenner Idols behind Altars, 1929, and Weyhe Galleries, Lexington Ave., can tell you who owns lithograph Requiem.3 Cliché could be done direct from litho.

Will try to see Orozco this afternoon. In case no great saying, another anecdote: In Mexico, all through colonial times, painters painted religious themes, and the people knew them as pintores de santos, painters of saints. Still known as such today by the lower classes. So when Mrs. Orozco hired a new maid by the name of Ermilia, Ermilia was cautioned to clean the house pretty well but not to enter Orozco's studio. This aroused Ermilia's curiosity, and she asked what activities went on there. Mrs. Orozco answered that her husband was pintor de santos, and Ermilia felt contented and somewhat sanctified to work for such a pious master. One day when Orozco was out, she decided to surprise him by cleaning the studio. Mrs. Orozco heard a piercing scream and rushed in time to see Ermilia rush disheveled out of the studio. “What's the matter, Ermilia?” “Santos, Santos, why madam, they all are pure devils!” And Mrs. Orozco lost a good maid.

1 Unpublished notes in materials for Jean Charlot: The Mexican Mural Renaissance, 1920–1925, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1967. Edited by John Charlot.

2 Miguel Alemán (1900−1983).

3 José Clemente Orozco: Rendition of the Last Spanish Troops on Mexican Soil at San Juan de Ulúa, 1917; The Wake, 1925.